UNHRC; Housing Challenge in Nigeria and Leilani Farha Observations

By Jerome-Mario Utomi
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Jerome-Mario Utomi
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Each passing day brings yet more evidence that we are facing a national challenge. And glaringly, our incapacity as a nation to develop necessary strategies and tactics to tackle some of these political and socioeconomic challenges have qualified the nation’s situation as a ‘social dynamite’. This should be a surprise to all Nigerians of goodwill because a strategy is ‘simply no more than a plan of action for maximizing one’s strength against the forces at work’. Yet, such a simple but vital instrument for development and nation-building is conspicuously missing in most- Ministries, Agencies, Commissions and Parastatals in a nation that prides itself as the giant of Africa and the most populous black nation in the world.

Likewise, apart from the belief by Nigerians that often always, it’s through foreign personalities, foreign media and very few Nigerian owned that accurately report the political and socio-economic situation in the country, one event in recent times that probably did more than anything else to convince Nigerians with critical interest to look differently at the out of ordered situation in the country is a preliminary report of findings and recommendations of a recent visit in September 2019, to the Republic of Nigeria by Ms Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing-a visit which has as a goal; assessing the housing conditions of people in Nigeria using international human rights law and standards, and to determine if governments are meeting their obligations in this regard.

Indeed, not only did the finding which is due for presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020, confirmed what has been on the minds of Nigerians, its description of the conditions met in the informal settlements visited as inhumane and an assault on human dignity, logically reputed as ‘words made flesh’ the age-long campaign against successive governments continual neglect of these communities by some notable Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), fair-minded and highly foresighted Nigerians.

For a better understanding of both the findings (report) and the piece, it will be highly rewarding to state that the mission that gave rise to this report was based on housing-related data, laws, jurisprudence and policies in several communities in three major urban centres: Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt was focused on vulnerable populations whose rights are most precarious.

And the exercise among other results confirmed the following; that economic inequality has reached extreme levels in Nigeria; that Nigeria’s housing sector is in a complete crisis; that there is no current national housing action plan or strategy. That Coordination and communication between federal and state governments seem lacking. Private market housing is unaffordable for most, rental housing is scarce, requires tenants to have one to two year’s rent in advance and there are no rent control or caps; And established that in Nigeria as in many other countries, real estate is used as a convenient place to launder corrupt money, to park excess capital and as a means of financial security for the wealthy.

This inequality underlined, is widely attributed to several factors, including corruption and mismanagement of public funds, and a failure to implement just tax policies, whereby low-income earners pay disproportionately more taxes than do high earning corporations. Less than 6 per cent of registered corporate taxpayers are active, and only between 15-40% of the Value Added Tax is collected.

Specifically, in my views, there are reasons that characterized this report as crucial. First, is Leilani remark that governments do not fully appreciate the nature and extent of the crisis on their hands second and very profound is the underlining that internally displaced persons living in an informal settlement in the Federal Capital Territory lives in appalling conditions. With over a hundred children attending a tiny, overcrowded one-room school run with little resources by an NGO, despite living half an hour drive away from Abuja’s city centre and the Federal Ministry of Education. Thirdly, if the report is submitted to the UN without the FG doing something theatrical to ameliorate the impact, it will again deplete the little reputation Nigeria showcases at the global stage.

Most fundamentally, regardless of what others may say, as someone that has spent over a decade with some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), that champions the campaign against forced eviction of some ‘slum’ and blighted communities and, resettlement of those evicted in Lagos, Abuja, Rivers and Delta, I need not pulse to know that the report was not just well ordered but perfectly articulated.

Standing as a telling proof to this assertion is a similar 129 paged report titled; Pushing Out The Poor (forced evictions under the Abuja master plan), based on upon findings generated from the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC), research missions undertaken in November 2005, and between May and June 2006 to the Federal Capital Territory and published in January 2007.

There are other concrete examples of such exercise that took place without conforming appreciably to international human rights standards as contained in General Comment 7 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development Based Evictions and Displacement (A/HRC/4/18, Annex).

I recall with nostalgia the excruciating pains suffered by the people/residents of Ijora-Badiya East, Makoko/Iwaya/Otto Ologbo (Yaba areas of Lagos state), Abonima Wharf and Njemanze waterfront of areas of Rivers State. And the inabilities of successive administrations in Lagos state to adequately compensate the former residents of Maroko community, Victoria Island, Lagos forcefully evicted in the early 1990s by the then military administration of Raji Rasaki.

Separate from Leilani Farha expression of concern that State governments routinely ignore the rule of law in right to housing cases, what is in some ways an even more troubling manifestation of how seriously off track successive administrations have taken us as a nation is a remark that Nigeria is the 29th largest economy in the world, just behind Norway and well ahead of countries like Singapore and Malaysia-and considered as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, albeit, reliant on the precarious oil market.

Yet, unable to meet the standard as set under international human rights law, which demands that states should spend the maximum of available resources toward the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights including the right to housing-this include collecting and imposing taxes, and developing mechanisms to prevent corrupt money from landing in residential real estate or other assets domestically or internationally.

This disgraceful treatment suffered by the vast majority of the vulnerable Nigerians in the hands of their leaders have created deep resentment and hurt the feelings of the nation.

Admittedly, a nation, in my opinion, can, of course, chose to fight/develop on the basis of a functional strength or sector recognizing that such sector will engineer the development of the state. But, in the case of Nigeria, there is no example of such priority by successive administration.

In view of the above, I believe without a doubt that the most important part of the report lies in its ability to expose the fundamental flaws in the country and render as invalid the data that are hardly objective, and inferences that is never explicit and the conclusion that is usually, self-serving daily generated by public officials and their aides who often give the impression that they already have exclusive possession of the truth and merely have to educate others about what they already know.

Consider this example reported in-depth; there is a consensus that the legal framework for land administration, especially the Land Use Act (LUA), is exacerbating the pressures on the housing sector. The manner in which the LUA has been used has resulted in severe consequences for the enjoyment of the right to housing. The LUA vests State Governors with significant management and administrative powers. Governors can grant rights of occupancy and also revoke them based on an “overriding “public purpose”. I received many reports of Governors abusing their land administration powers, including granting occupancy rights to family members and friends; defining public purpose in a manner that results in forced evictions of impoverished communities inconsistent with international human rights law, including for luxury developments that often stand vacant – unsold or unused. The LUA also makes land title registration cumbersome and extremely onerous to perfect.

Very seriously also, before concluding that the above is the only harm the government is doing to her people gaze calmly and honestly at the next paragraph for another shocking revelation as factually documented by Ms Leilani Farha, and her team.

None of the homes visited had running water, boreholes or portable water, thus most families have to pay high prices to access household and drinking water. Those who could not afford fresh water were using contaminated floodwater, resulting in cholera and other health issues. I saw a few houses with latrines. According to UNICEF, diarrhoea kills more than 70,000 children under five years old annually in Nigeria, most of it caused by poor access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene. Nearly one-quarter of Nigerians defecate in the open.

Finally, to be candid, there may be a sincere desire by the government to develop the political and socio-economic situations in the country, however, any government; whether state or federal, desirous of doing this must study this report in order to function accordingly.

Jerome-Mario Utomi ( [email protected] ), writes from Lagos,

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